The Prisoner - The show remains the same

As a remake of The Prisoner begins on ITV1, James Rampton examines other reinventions and distinguishes the durable from the dated

In the opening scene of ITV's reworking of the cult classic The Prisoner, a man known only as Number Six wakes up in a strange desert. The first thing he see s is a bearded old man being chased by a posse armed with guns and dogs. Number Six carries the elderly man, who, it emerges, is named Number 93, to the safety of a nearby cave.

As the old man fades towards death, he whispers in Number Six's ear: "Tell all I got out. Go to 554."

"554? What?" asks the clearly bemused Number Six.

"You're not from here, are you?"

"I don't even know how I got to this place," responds the increasingly perplexed Number Six.

"You're a blessed miracle. Be seeing you," laughs Number 93, before quietly expiring.

Any idea what's going on here? Me neither. But that is very much as it should be. Compelling, complex and confusing, this surreal tale of a man who has no idea why he has been imprisoned in a menacing Village is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. It is Lost, as related by Franz Kafka. The point of The Prisoner is, there is no point.

The Prisoner first hit our screens 43 years ago in Patrick McGoohan's version, shot at Portmeirion in Wales. With the shoot relocated to Namibia in southern Africa, it is the latest classic TV series to be rebooted for the new millennium.

Some revived series have met with perhaps unexpected success, silencing potentially disdainful critics. For instance, Doctor Who, a series transported back from outer-space oblivion in 2005 after 16 years away from our screens – the Paul McGann-starring TV movie of 1996 aside – has proved a stratospheric success. It has become the biggest television drama of the last five years.

Meanwhile, BBC1's Reggie Perrin, with Martin Clunes replacing the late Leonard Rossiter in the title role, returned last year after a 30-year gap and was described by one reviewer as "a far better series than many expected". Survivors, too, survived a 31-year absence to come back in 2008 to a largely favourable reception.

Not all reimagined series have fared quite so well, though. When Five thought it might be on to a nice little earner by resurrecting Minder last year, the channel was greeted with a good old-fashioned East End pasting. Dubbing it "Guy Ritchie-lite", one reviewer declared that: "It is bad, because there simply isn't any call for it."

Commissioning editors seem to have developed a serious remake habit. They reach for these reinventions of old series because they are a known quantity. With ever-increasing pressure on new programmes to establish an immediate following or face the axe mid-series, it is a major advantage to be able to present viewers with a brand that comes with an in-built fan-base.

That would explain why several other remakes are in the pipeline. BBC1 is planning a new interpretation of Upstairs, Downstairs, the well-loved 1970s series about the staff at a posh London townhouse in the early-20th century. Meanwhile, ITV1 is bringing back Bouquet of Barbed Wire, the ultimate drama about keeping it in the family. In this new adaptation of the racy 1976 series, Trevor Eve takes over from Frank Finlay in the lead.

Perhaps enviously eyeing the storming regeneration of Doctor Who, Sky One is also working on a reimagining of Blake's 7, Terry Nation's cult science-fiction series, which originally ran from 1978 to 1981. The gifted Nation was also responsible for Survivors and, of course, the Daleks.

So what makes some re-toolings of classic vehicles fly high, while others crash and burn? The ones that do work have a universal resonance. If an idea is strong enough, it can be revisited and chime with viewers in any era. So while Minder now appears to be stuck in a 1980s time-warp, Reggie Perrin seems to touch on more universal ideas about ennui and disillusion.

In the same way, Doctor Who connects with our eternal longing for escapist fantasy. The fifth series, which began on BBC1 earlier this month with the new show-runner Steven Moffat in charge, is playing up the fairytale elements of the story.

What of The Prisoner, then? Will that thrive when it is released into the community in 2010? The signs that it can be rehabilitated in the present day are promising. The tale of a nameless man, Number Six (played by Jim Caviezel), who has no clue why he is being held captive and rails against the authoritarian leader of the Village, Number Two (Ian McKellen), plugs into timeless themes.

The ideas first developed by McGoohan more than four decades ago still have traction today: the deceptiveness of appearances, the confusion between fantasy and reality, the power of dreams, the insidiousness of the surveillance society and political dictatorships, the impact of mind games and the effect of psychiatry.

The piece is infused with a very 21st-century sense of paranoia about state control. After all, we live in the country with the most CCTV cameras per capita in the world. So Number Six's celebrated cri de coeur – "I am not a number, I'm a free man" – shakes us as much today as it did in 1967.

Lennie James, who plays Number 147, a taxi driver who seems to be happy with his lot in the Village, asserts that, "The Prisoner has endured because it is a classic whose ideas will never date. The proof of its durability is the fact that so many people have returned to it in different versions. Lost, The Matrix and The Truman Show have all drawn on the central theme of The Prisoner: what is reality?

"Where exactly are the characters in Lost? Are they in limbo or on a strange island? The people in the Village are faced with the same questions because the reality they have created might not be what they think it is."

Hayley Atwell, who plays Number Six's love interest, Number 4-15, and also makes baffling appearances in his flashbacks to a former life in New York, observes that The Prisoner continues to strike a chord because, "It taps into the paranoia that we all share. It is giving the audience a taste of what we are dealing with in society every day. Great drama does that – it reflects our deeper unconscious needs.

"The great thing about The Prisoner is that there is no definitive outcome. There are no absolute answers in this drama. Nothing is neatly tied up – which is just like life. It's not meant to make sense."

This is the chief reason why we should welcome the return of The Prisoner: unlike so much modern-day TV drama, it furnishes us with more questions than answers. Jamie Campbell Bower, who plays Number Six's disturbed son, Number 11-12, reflects that, "The Prisoner will get viewers to think – and that's very rare these days. I'm totally disappointed by most TV drama – it's so formulaic.

"We live in a society where people want instant gratification. So when you find a successful formula, everyone else copies it. Look at Pop Idol, The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent – oh, my God, so boring! I hope The Prisoner will herald a return to more challenging television."

McKellen concludes that, "There are certain scenes in The Prisoner where you don't quite know where you are – and that's a good thing. So much telly these days is linear and over-explained, but this is very different. It's a very bold thing for ITV1 to do. Viewers need extending. Commissioning editors need to push boundaries and make things that don't provide all the answers.

"We want more shows like this that make people ask, 'what on earth is going on?'"

'The Prisoner' begins on Saturday at 9.30pm on ITV1

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